An indulgence for the pope

Francis has thawed relations with the LGBT community. But can love overcome Scripture and Church doctrine?

January 6, 2014 12:15PM ET
The Advocate chose Pope Francis as the magazine's 2013 person of the year.

In December, the Advocate — the largest and oldest LGBT publication in the United States — chose Pope Francis as its person of the year.

That’s a milestone. The court battles for same-sex marriage made 2013 headlines, yet the debate over rights of sexual minorities in the United States has always been, at heart, a religious conversation. The needle moves for gay and lesbian rights in direct relation to how Christians — the vast majority of Americans — choose to put their religious and cultural heritage into policy. If lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people can see an ally in the pope, something in the landscape has radically shifted.

To be sure, Francis did not upset any official church positions. He is no fan of same-sex marriage, as was made clear by his record and remarks during his tenure as an archbishop in Argentina. The views he has expressed from the Holy See do not depart doctrinally from those held by previous popes about the treatment of gay and lesbian people, in or out of the church’s pews.

But his change in tone sends a message. On the treatment of LGBT people, as for other issues such as poverty, transparency and church hierarchy, Francis seems to be testing new ground. “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will,” he remarked last summer to journalists while returning from a trip to Brazil, "who am I to judge?" 

Bold words. The Advocate and many members of the global LGBT community have opted to hear such remarks and other murmurs with extraordinary hope. By putting Francis on its cover— with an impish “NOH8” inked on his cheek— the Advocate sends its own signal: an invitation to detente. 

The audacity of hope

Conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh was quick to call cultural Armageddon. On his show he said that the move was a kind of liberal bait to draw “the most powerful religious figure in the world” to a global LGBT agenda, “sort of like Obama getting the Nobel Peace Prize before he’s done anything.”

While it is unlikely that a gay magazine would drive policy at the Vatican, the Barack Obama parallel is not a bad comparison. Both the U.S. President and the Pope moved into beleaguered institutions. Both wield the iconography of change. Yet both face a massive challenge in bringing that change into a polarized world.

The Nobel committee was genuinely hopeful for a new kind of American president, one who operates with international consensus, and with diplomacy before guns. But what exactly could the Advocate editorial board hope to get from Francis?

Detente is a sound first step — and one that the pope appears to be embracing as well. In multiple interviews, he emphasizes that de-escalation is key: “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” he says. Francis consistently notes that there is more pressing work for his church and for his papacy, in fighting poverty and changing a culture of entrenched hierarchy. Resolving the agonizing conflict between LGBT people and the words of Scripture can wait. 

Love and condemnation

Christians face a paradox: They may love their LGBT sons, mothers, neighbors and choirmasters, but the Bible will always contain the story of Sodom. It will always carry the strictures of Leviticus, calling for the death penalty against male-male intimacy, and Romans 1:26–27, which carries that sentiment into the New Testament. In December, Phil Robertson, the magnate of the Duck Dynasty business empire and TV show, was pilloried partly for the anti-gay comments he made to GQ — but to his credit, they were fairly accurately paraphrased from 1 Corinthians: “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

The Catholic Church is facing its 21st century Galileo moment. This time, the nagging proof of nature’s obstinate patterns are walking in its members’ midst.

This is clearly hardest for those who belong to both worlds. LGBT Catholics have dreamed of healing the rift between sexuality and the church for centuries. Some dreams are fantastic, like the roman a clef “Hadrian VII,” written in 1904 by a very gay Frederick Rolfe. The novel tells of a failed seminarian, like the author, who is miraculously chosen to be pope. He solves the world’s problems with panache while surrounded by comely young guards. On the more pragmatic end, read Andrew Sullivan’s excellent recent profile of Francis. In the first nine months of the papacy, Sullivan sees in this pope “a profound critique of the desiccated promise of fundamentalism,” a man who will through personal humility and great spirit somehow overcome legalism and become an “untier of knots.” Both visions brim with a hunger for church that bridges an impossible divide.

Yet for those who stand outside the church, it’s hard to imagine that knot untied. The Christian holy texts are only one part of the tangle. Gay culture represents a culmination of modernity, grounded in the postenlightenment ideal of self-determination. The church offers a call to another ethic, of the narrow road to grace that comes from sublimation to a hierarchy both temporal and spiritual.

More and more, the Catholic Church finds that it is facing its 21st century Galileo moment. This time, the nagging proof of nature’s obstinate patterns are walking in its members’ midst. They are parishioners, family and neighbors, LGBT people who go to work, raise children, have spiritual needs and who increasingly represent a harmless variation on normal human sexuality that threatens basic teachings of the church.

Frustrations have become acute. Students from Eastside Catholic High School, in a suburb of Seattle, made national headlines on Dec. 19 — the day after the Advocate cover — by staging a protest in support of their vice principal, who was forced to resign for marrying his same-sex partner. Solidarity protests broke out in other area Catholic schools, with hundreds of students taking to the streets. The message was simple. Perhaps gay people don’t belong in the same class of people, as Robertson and St. Paul would have them, with drunks and swindlers.

The tasks ahead

If there is to be more forward motion — if the Catholic Church is to establish a more peaceable footing with not only the LGBT community but also the societies and parishioners who act so passionately on its behalf — there must be movement on two fronts.

The church hierarchy must, as Sullivan points out, back off its course of selective legalism. Those in the pews are already willing to gloss over biblical passages about their gay and lesbian neighbors. A 2012 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute notes that Catholics in the United States are more likely to support same-sex marriage than Protestants, with an eye-popping 59 percent of those surveyed voicing support, and the next generation skews more progressive on the issue. Francis has called for a worldwide survey among the faithful on attitudes toward birth control, same-sex marriage and other matters of modern family life. Though focus groups may not drive doctrine, they will certainly expose where theologians are out of step.

The LGBT community has an even more difficult task ahead of them. Religious communities will continue to shape civic life. Christian leaders will continue to grapple with LGBT issues. Without forgetting the past two millennia, which include many horrific injustices justified by Christian teaching, LGBT leaders must welcome positive steps from the religious sphere. A de-escalation of tensions is absolutely required to reconcile communities of faith with the full citizenship of LGBT people. As the Advocate states in its person-of-the-year rationale, “In the end we are often faced with a straight person who decides our fate.”

As a gay man, I’ve chosen to view the Advocate cover as a sort of papal indulgence from the LGBT community. An indulgence is a Catholic extension of grace toward those who have sinned. It rewards good actions by wiping away some of the obstacles in Purgatory. It doesn’t offer forgiveness; it simply shortens the long, painful road to atonement.

That’s a first step. May the year ahead be filled with compassion, patience and the hard work of reconciling ancient traditions with our growing understanding.

Jason Anthony writes and lectures about religion in America. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Christian Century, Boston Review and elsewhere. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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